Are Humanities degrees worthless? Britain debates employability concerns of Mickey Mouse courses

A UK university recently decided to axe its English Literature course because of concerns over employability of those who graduate in the subject

By Prasun Sonwalkar

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Published: Fri 12 Aug 2022, 11:35 PM

Last updated: Fri 12 Aug 2022, 11:50 PM

Karan Bilimoria, a member of the House of Lords, wears several hats, including that of Chancellor of University of Birmingham. He is usually a soft-spoken man, but perhaps nothing riles him more than ministers and managers of higher education branding subjects such as History of Art, Philosophy or English Literature as ‘low value courses’, to be dropped in favour of subjects that are supposed to provide better job prospects to students (there is a popular term for courses considered of low value: ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees).

“It infuriates me,” he says, “It is wrong to think of a degree in English Literature in a negative way. There is much to be gained by studying Medieval, Victorian, Modern or Comparative literature. Anyone who thinks such subjects are of low value don’t know what they are talking about — absolute nonsense. They provide many transferable skills — analytical, communication, written — that helps students to take on a range of jobs”.

Cambridge-educated Bilimoria is more known as the founder of a global spirits brand but has long pushed for the provision of Arts and Humanities courses in UK universities, which continue to attract many international students. His mother and daughter studied History of Art, while his University of Birmingham nurtures a strong provision in English Literature, through the Birmingham Shakespeare Institute and close links with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

There is a tinge of despair that Sheffield Hallam University in June became the latest to suspend or drop the English Literature course due to lack of demand, but Bilimoria hopes only few universities will axe such courses. He points to the continued availability of highly-regarded provision in the subject at Birmingham and other universities. “There are many reasons why it makes sense to encourage the creative industries. The Arts make self-starters, develop emotional intelligence. The Arts are stretching. Arts students are highly sought after by employers. The Arts reach parts other subjects cannot reach”, Bilimoria, also president of the Confederation of British Industry, said in a debate in parliament.

Sheffield Hallam’s decision, announced a year after University of Cumbria took a similar step, has provoked a debate over the direction of British higher education. ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees are largely axed due to economic reasons following the government’s pledge to cull courses that have poor job return for graduates by withdrawing student loan funding.

For several years, the UK university sector has faced deep funding cuts, threatening academic jobs, course provision and student enrolment, forcing many universities and departments to rely on high fee-paying international students to remain viable. The Covid-19 pandemic added to the woes of universities already weakened by years of marketisation and privatisation. About a quarter of 140 UK universities have been in deficit, several teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, and according to analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, 13 universities face “a very real prospect” of going bust.

Home students take loans to pay their way through university, typically emerging with a degree and a debt of about £50,000 each, repayable over decades in employment. Increasing university costs in recent years have turned students into customers, who want guaranteed bang for their bucks. When students saddled with debt are unable to repay the loans through low-wage jobs, key stakeholders lose out, forcing ministers and others to openly call for an end to ‘low value’ degrees. The gnawing march of a bottom-line approach to higher education, which privileges employability, is also reflected in the ongoing election of the next Conservative leader and prime minister. Rishi Sunak, educated at Oxford, has vowed to phase out degrees that do not improve students’ “earning potential”, while Liz Truss, his rival, has pitched herself as an ‘education prime minister’, promising a revamp at various levels of education. Michelle Donelan, minister for higher and further education, insists that the government recognises that all subjects, including the Arts and Humanities, can lead to positive student outcomes, but adds: “Courses that do not lead students on to work or further study fail both the students who pour their time and effort in, and the taxpayer, who picks up a substantial portion of the cost”.

There has been a slow but consistent drum-beat in recent years about ‘low value, low quality’ degrees, including in manifesto promises during elections. The Augar Review established by Theresa May’s government in 2018 said in a section on ‘Bearing down on low value HE’: “There is a misalignment at the margin between England’s otherwise outstanding system of higher education and the country’s economic requirements. A twenty-year market in lightly regulated higher education has greatly expanded the number of skilled graduates bringing considerable social and economic benefits and wider participation for students from lower socio-economic groups. However, for a small but significant minority of degree students doing certain courses at certain institutions, the university experience leads to disappointment. We make recommendations intended to encourage universities to bear down on low value degrees and to incentivise them to increase the provision of courses better aligned with the economy’s needs”.

Axing English Literature and other Humanities or Arts courses has irked several writers, former students and others who believe such subjects help evolve better-rounded graduates. Joining vigorous debates in mainstream and social media, they recall that some decades ago students of subjects, such as medicine and law would be required to do an Arts or Humanities subject as part of the course to broaden their minds.

Philip Pullman, the award-winning author, told The Guardian: “The study of literature should not be a luxury for a wealthy minority of spoilt and privileged aesthetes, but a spring of precious truth and life that every one of us is entitled to. Without literature, without music and art and dance and drama, people young and old alike will perish of mental and emotional and imaginative starvation”. Acquiring knowledge and skills in areas beyond the core subject used to be seen an essential part of higher education, since it promotes, creativity, intelligence and ability to think.

James Cole, software engineer in Bath and a reader of The Guardian, wrote in response to Sheffield Hallam dropping the English Literature course: “English Literature degrees teach criticism, a form of analysis that suits the workplace very well. What is the truth in a given situation, how does it tie into wider themes, and how can I best communicate that? Deep reading skills, mental organisation, patience. Studying STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) doesn’t develop these skills in the same way, and I should know because I also have an MPhil in computer science. Almost none of my colleagues have Humanities degrees, and it shows. A Humanities student learns a history of systems, approaches, and theories. They learn how these failed and why. STEM, meanwhile, encourages the view that the world is a system that can be understood and manipulated. And in a practical way this is true — and very cool. But it can also encourage conformity and stifle questioning and innovation”.

The UK’s university sector is far from homogeneous. A distinctive group of ‘research intensive universities’ (also known as the Russell Group of universities) with very large levels of such activity, are considered the most prestigious institutions. Newer universities focussing on teaching and research specialisms have their own distinctive standing. There are literally degrees of quality across the 140 universities in the UK: from the ancient world-leading centres of excellence such as Oxford and Cambridge, to former polytechnics who gained university status in 1992, to many that excel in some subjects, to others that have long remained low on various performance indicators, including research, student experience and employability. International students have a wide choice to study at UK universities, but in many ways even those on the lowest rung may be better than options at home, if only for the extensive access all universities provide to libraries and niche databases across the globe.

So far, the number of universities axing subjects and departments has remained small but is growing. Roehampton and Wolverhampton have said they plan to close their Arts and Humanities programmes. It is a mixed picture for English Literature: places on the subject’s courses in Russell Group universities are highly coveted, but face closure in smaller universities, mainly due to decline in demand and popularity over the past two decades, when the subject found less takers at the A-levels by 35 per cent, which has implications for take-up at the university level. The government’s bid to determine funding based on ‘measurable outcomes’ for subjects means that Arts and Humanities programmes score low compared to STEM subjects. Prioritising funding based on metrics has led to a general devaluing of Arts and Humanities degrees.

Along with changes in the sector, the very idea of a well-rounded education has undergone a shift in recent years. As historian Simon Heffer notes in The Telegraph, “Once, most perceptive people had an idea of what an educated person was. He or she had usually been to university: and, whatever the degree and whatever the ‘educated person’ ended up doing — chairman of a company, doctor or lawyer, computer technician or a research scientist – that person had some grasp of the humanities. They had read the great works of English literature. They had the rudiments (at least) of a foreign language. They knew some history, and a little about religion and about philosophy. If someone made a popular classical reference, be it about Julius Caesar being stabbed in the back or Nero fiddling while Rome burned, it made sense. They could distinguish Mozart from Stravinsky, Wren from Richard Rogers, Van Dyck from Lucian Freud. And all of this led to their having a critical faculty they could deploy in their working lives, their personal relationships, their consumption of creative works, or even just in choosing a prime minister at a general election… But now that may be about to change. The new establishment is computer literate, knows something of quantum mechanics and is equal to any mathematical problem. More and more universities are dropping humanities degrees mainly, it appears, through lack of demand”.

Universities UK (UUK), the influential umbrella body representing 140 UK universities, has published a new framework to assess the value of courses to students and the wider society, which includes asking members to announce steps taken in monitoring, assessing and taking action on ‘low value’ courses on their websites by early 2023. The framework includes rates of continuation, completion and progression onto graduate jobs, as well as graduate views on career progression. Universities are encouraged to consider how their courses contribute to high growth industries, business creation and skills needs in local areas, and where graduates contribute to public services, for example the National Health Service, and to cultural and positive environmental activity. Universities, the body believes, must be able to communicate why they offer the courses they do, and the value of those courses, to prospective students, employers and the public.

In the sector’s wider context of student-as-consumer, English Literature courses have also been in the news as part of the Black Lives Movement and calls to de-colonise syllabus in UK universities. A new investigation based on Freedom of Information requests by The Times found that UK universities have started removing books from reading lists to protect students from “challenging” content and have applied trigger warnings to more than 1,000 texts. Ten universities, including three from the Russell Group, have withdrawn books from course study lists, or made them optional, in case they cause harm to students. The texts include the 2017 Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead, which has been “removed permanently” from a course reading list at Essex University because of concerns about graphic depictions of slavery. The classic play Miss Julie by August Strindberg has been withdrawn from a module at Sussex University because it includes discussion of suicide. English students at Aberdeen University are also told they can opt out of discussions about Geoffrey Chaucer and medieval writing as the course “sometimes entails engagement with topics that you may find emotionally challenging” — all of which takes English Literature in the home of English to a new, low high.

Prasun Sonwalkar is a journalist based in London. Twitter: @PrasunSonwalkar

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